I am a funny guy. I don’t like admitting this, even if it’s true. Our society has a dismissive view of comedy. Comedy is silly. Comedy is slight. Certainly, comedy is a frivolous, unimportant thing. Especially compared to tragedy. Comedy might make you laugh, but it can’t make you feel. It can’t make you think.
“Balderdash!!” I shout. I shout it so loudly that it does indeed require two exclamation marks.
The ancient roots of the terms comedy and tragedy were much less rigid. Comedies had happy endings. Tragedies had unhappy endings. A girl looks for her missing dog and finds it. That’s comedy. A girl looks for her missing dog and finds it’s going to law school. That’s tragedy. The stories could be identical, really. It’s just the end that defines them.
The problem is that somewhere along the way, comedy became lesser while tragedy became greater. And you only need look at the Academy Awards or any number of literary merits to realize that this is true. If you’re movie doesn’t have someone bludgeoned to death in a tragic accident in the third act, then you probably aren’t going to win an Oscar.
I don’t like unhappy endings. I just don’t. It’s not that I find them distrubing or annoying. Although sometimes that is the case. It’s because life is already full of unhappy endings. Tragedy is all around us all the time. The world is one, huge relentless unhappy ending, and if you don’t believe me, just ask the dinosaurs. Except you can’t. Because they’re all dead, and we’re using the sludge they left behind to power our cars. So hooray for us, I suppose. Until the mole people rise up and harvest our brains to feed to their pet morlocks.
A story with a happy ending is not automatically slight. A story with a bit of humor isn’t either. Perhaps my favorite movie of the year is Up, the delightful Pixar film about a lonely old man, a lonely young boy, a flying house, and an army of talking dogs. The story is as heartfelt and beautiful as anything I’ve seen this year, and (I hope that this isn’t giving anything away) the ending isn’t unhappy at all. Yet it’s richly satisfying, touching, and above all, emotionally resonant.
Also, did I mention the talking dogs?
As a guy who writes about monsters, weirdness, and raccoon gods, I struggle with the burden of comedy, of percieved slightness. On the one hand, why should I care if someone thinks of my books as just “silly” if they enjoy them? On the other, I have to admit a bit of a resentment toward “literary” fiction for often being overwritten, dull, intentionally dissatisfying storytelling and yet getting all the praise and awards. I’m human. I can’t help it.
I take pride in what I do. I work hard at it. And I’m not in this for awards or praise. I just do my job, take my paycheck, and hope for the best. Considering how lucky I’ve been so far, it would be dumb to even care if I ever get recognized as anything other than a “silly” writer.
But I do care. Every time one of my books is labeled “funny”, I bristle. I can’t help it. It’s a reflex. I’m almost ready to take it as an insult, even when it’s always offered in the sincerest, most complimentary way. Then I realize that I’m just falling into the same trap we all do. I’m assuming that funny means slight and unimportant. I’m assuming that comedy is easy, that tragedy is something a good writer aspires to and comedy is something an adequate writer accepts.
Comedy ain’t easy. Unhappy endings do not a great story make. And if I can make someone laugh that’s terrific. Given a choice between making someone’s day a little brighter or darker, I’ll choose brighter every time. It might keep me from being a “serious” novelist, but it sure as heck helps me to be the best novelologist I can be. And really, what more could I ask of the universe?
Maybe laser vision. Yeah, laser vision would be awesome.